This is one of my favorite lessons. I did it almost every year I was teaching and always had a good response. It works well because the writing assignment involves choice and authenticity. They aren’t writing what I tell them to write and they aren’t writing to me. Click here to see the instruction page I used in the classroom.
STEP ONE, PICK A TOPIC
The students pick a topic they care about that impacts their local, state, or national community. Some students come up with ideas right away, some need a list and then easily select from that list. What they are going to do with that topic is write a letter to the appropriate government official regarding that topic and their opinion on it. If you are teaching in a school, it would be great to plan this activity around the time history classes are learning about government. I emphasize from the beginning that they have important things to say, no matter their age and that even though they can’t vote yet, they can and SHOULD still make their voices be heard.
STEP TWO, DETERMINE AUDIENCE
Based on the topic they choose, you will let them know if their audience will be their principal, superintendent, city council, mayor, state legislator, governor, U.S. legislator, or the president. (i.e. if they’re writing about a speed limit in their neighborhood, the letter doesn’t need to go to the President. If they want a certain law passed, it depends on whose jurisdiction it falls under. Very few letters actually end up being written to the president based on the topics kids usually choose). Most of them want to write the president, but it is important for them to have a basic understanding of how government works and that our local leaders take care of local issues. After a mini lesson on this, most students understand and find a lot of value with writing their local leaders which I see as a very important lesson.
STEP THREE, RESEARCH
After their topic and audience is determined, it’s time to do a bit of research. Most of my students have chosen topics that are popular issues and so research for both sides is not hard to find. Since this is part of a unit on persuasion, we talk about how this develops their “logos” area of persuasion. (If you haven’t already, do a mini lesson on ethos, logos, and pathos)
I emphasize a lot to the kids that they need to look at both sides of the issue. We talk about “counterarguments” when they’re writing these letters. I often phrase it this way to help kids understand: “What if you’re trying to persuade your mom and dad that you should have a later curfew? What is your mom’s first point going to be? *not safe, I don’t want to wait up, no reason for you to be out, etc* Your point will be a lot stronger if you anticipate the opposite view, and bring it up from the beginning with your own counterpoint. For example – Mom, I think I should have a later curfew. I will let you know where I am at all times and I will come wake you up as soon as I get home. I will tell you all the details of our plan before we go out and it would only be one night a week. Many of my friends already have a later curfew than me and I feel like I have missed out on a lot of fun things because I am always the first one to go home.”
I usually have them read a least three different sources/websites.
STEP FOUR, OUTLINE
Especially since letters are short, it is so important for students to have a good, strong outline. Also, many students are completely unfamiliar with writing a letter. This is the outline stem I provide:
I. Introduce yourself (2-3 sentences. This is where the ETHOS of your persuasion comes in. Why should this individual listen to you?)
II. Introduce your topic (2-3 sentences. What are you writing about and BRIEFLY state why it is an issue that deserves their attention. These are very busy people)
III. Explain your reasoning (6-8 sentences. This typically will form a long paragraph. This the LOGOS of your argument. Why should this individual agree with you AND why should they take action on this particular issue. Include research and counterarguments with strong counterpoints)
IV. Close and call to action (3-4 sentences. Be gracious, thank them for their time and remind them what you want them to DO – what specific action should they take? Close your letter)
STEP FIVE, WRITE
Students now need to write their letters! I give my students this sample letter: Letter Format
I would show them several examples of official letters so they can get used to the style and format. I then give them the letter format specific to this assignment. Some students used it religiously, some didn’t even look at it – just depends on their experience with letters. Again, many of your students have probably never seen an official letter before.
STEP SIX, EDIT
Before they proofread and edit, we talk about how important it is for this letter to sound very polished. I remind them of audience and we talk about how errors can hurt your credibility or ETHOS. We also use this time to talk about the power of word choice. This is where students will add in the element of PATHOS to their writing. Point out weak words in their letters, but allow them to try and find stronger words.
STEP SEVEN, SEND
With my large classes and hundreds of students, this was always the problem area. You have to make a large part of the assignment them showing up with an envelop, a stamp, and two copies of the letter on the due date. What I might do (that I didn’t do) is have them bring the envelop with the stamp before the letter is due. I would require it 2 days after I made the initial assignment and then just pass back the envelopes when they are ready to be sent, make it less of a mess on mailing day… I might even buy a book of stamps and envelops and have students “buy” them from me for $0.50. It wasn’t too crazy the day of, but I had to spend a lot of time reminding and even notifying parents what we were doing (this is a good assignment to get the parents involved anyway).
The students turn in one copy of the letter so I can grade it and then address and seal up their envelopes and turn them in. I just dropped them by the local post office.
STEP EIGHT, REPLIES!
At the beginning, I get the students excited by telling them they will get a response (I put a caveat on this for students writing to the most local of leaders – principals, superintendents, and mayors). I have yet to have a student not get a letter back in the mail. They love it! They all come running in to class with their letters so excited to show me what President Obama said or Senator so-and-so wrote to THEM. One year I even was sent a huge packet from the White House with a letter addressed to “The Students of Timberline Middle School.” (I guess they noticed a lot of letters coming in mentioning our school. The principal passed it along to me) I would give a little bit of extra credit to students who brought their letters in, but most wanted to even without that. I do warn them that sometimes it can take several weeks or months to get letters back, depending on where they send them.